A recent report produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that if 95% of Americans wore masks, we could save nearly 70,000 lives that would otherwise be lost to Covid-19 by March 1. Additional research has shown that wearing face masks reduces the spread of Covid-19. But while infection rates are rising in all 50 states, only 34 states and the District of Columbia require face covering in public. In cities and counties with masking mandates, Covid-19 cases have tended to decline compared to municipalities without such rules. Indeed, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seven studies have confirmed significant declines in coronavirus infections in communities after universal masking orders were implemented.
As the United States faces a tsunami of Covid-19 infections, with 2,200 daily deaths projected by mid-January, a national masking mandate is long overdue as part of a federal strategy to prevent further spread of the virus.
President-elect Joe Biden has made implementing this critical public health intervention a top priority. He will call on governors to enact masking orders in their states and ask local authorities to buttress these actions by making them mandatory in their municipalities.
This is a key beginning, because policymakers’ mixed messaging about whether or not to wear masks has been extremely confusing to the public. Additionally, growing Covid-19 pandemic fatigue may be making mask-wearing less likely.
We also urgently need a national mask certification and labeling program to provide people with information that could help them choose which face coverings to wear.
The myriad of face coverings available in the marketplace –from cloth masks to neck gaiters to N95s– has left many people mystified about which to use and what kind of protection it provides. Any mask is better than no mask, but researchers at the N95DECON collaborative have found the level of protection to vary widely among fabric type as well as brands that appear to look similar.
When the CDC recently updated its guidance to underscore that wearing masks provides the dual benefit of protecting both the user and others, it also highlighted the need for more research on which materials best block and filter the virus.
CDC guidance that masks include two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric that cover the nose and mouth completely, secured under the chin and fit snugly around the face is helpful, but for the general public we must raise the bar.
We would never dream of sending our country’s soldiers into combat without state-of-the-art helmets, armor and weapons. In this battle against Covid-19, all Americans need the best personal protection possible to fight back.
Consumers need an easy to use rating system: just as the US requires package content and labeling for tobacco and food products, masks should be rated for the percent of viral particles filtered by the mask.
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